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Western Exceptionalism

Rick Grimes

Jun 19, 2023

I was prompted to write to this article whilst watching an awful piece of propaganda, entitled Michael Palin in North Korea. If you want to understand Western exceptionalism, watch this programme, first with and then without sound, because the only part of this presentation that makes the DPRK look bad is Palin’s narration. This narration leads the viewer away from the actual truth of what they are seeing with their own eyes, carrying hints of a threatening presence behind the camera, even though it appears that everyone is very welcoming to Mr Palin, even if they are a little bit dubious over his true intentions. This dubiety is largely justified by the condescending manner in which Palin acts towards his hospitable hosts.

Western exceptionalism is extremely insidious. It has infested our culture and lives deep within those who either haven’t understood, or don’t care, that western culture isn’t as prevalent in the world as the television may have us believe. Globalisation may have put a McDonalds on every corner  of our towns and cities and Hollywood on everyone’s screens, but it has not been successful (at least yet) in usurping all other cultures.

I recall hearing two young work colleagues discussing something they had heard on the news about Iran, and how they believed we would be at war with them soon. This wasn’t far from the truth, as it was leaked by a US military officer that plans were afoot to wage war on “Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and then Iran”. The discussion continued, with my colleagues laughing about ‘fighting Arabs with sticks’.

Obviously, this is a stereotype peddled by Hollywood modelled on the Bedouin people of centuries past. This stereotype is lazy and dangerous. Iran was a signatory to the JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – an agreement between USA and Iran on disarmament) and had the capability to be a nuclear power – even after signing this agreement, they are still a formidable force. From Iran’s point of view, this power is necessary to protect themselves from the same acts of aggression which have befallen their neighbours: The invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria and the complete collapse, or in Syria’s case an attempt to collapse, their governments. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the myth of capitulation created from it explains, at least partially, why my work colleagues believed that the lions of Iran were really just paper tigers.

This same attitude persists when evaluating any countries outside of the West’s sphere of influence. Just like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (or North Korea, as its referred to in Western media). This is a country that has become insular and cut off from the rest of the world, not only because of US-imposed sanctions, but for its own protection. The Korean War and previous history have seen terrible atrocities committed on the Korean people. The Southern end of the Korean Peninsula is still militarily occupied by the USA. There are 174 military bases in South Korea. It is precious-little wonder then that the DPRK adopts a permanent siege mentality.

Returning back to Michael Palin in his programme, he has a discussion with a Korean (DPRK) officer about his country, its ‘place in the world’ and history.

He begins this conversation by referring to the size of the DPRK’s army and its military spending. The discussion is framed by Palin as a strange a way for a country to act, even though USA and the UK both spent over £800 billion on their military in the past year. The officer plainly states that, since 1950, they have been constantly threatened by the USA, so deem it necessary to have a strong military and nuclear arsenal. Palin replies with the condescending manner of someone who feels he has the correct information and needs to explain what is correct to the other person. The other person being a military professional and Palin being, well, a comedian.

Mr Palin tells his viewers how his minders are “Not particularly happy with our questioning”, showing a complete lack of self-awareness to his insulting behaviour. In an early conversation about the Korean war, he is utterly dismissive of the officer and what he explains to Palin, parroting back to the officer the same lies we are accustomed to in the West. His whole manner is reminiscent of an old British colonialist entering a foreign land and teaching the local savages how to behave themselves. Mr Palin’s comedic talents at one time were employed satirising old colonial attitudes, now he personifies them.

This programme shows some of the beauty of the DPRK and its impressive construction developments. Michael Palin wastes no opportunity to further push his chosen narrative. When he enters a lovely looking newly built airport, he takes his opportunity to mention that the DPRK are looking to invite tourists in,  but must stop looking like the “bully boys” first. This is said without a hint of irony, proving Palins willing ignorance or complete lack of self-awareness of the country of his birth and its Nato partners’ actions around the world.

I could pull apart this programme from start to finish, but there is one scene which sums up Western exceptionalism, which is when his guide takes him to Mount Kumgang to see some of the natural splendour of Korea. The guide, a charming young Korean lady, has been with him through his whole journey in this programme, striking up a friendly relationship and even celebrating Palin’s 75th birthday with him.

They take a hike up the Kuryong waterfall and once again he wastes no opportunity to insult by announcing that “For the first time since my arrival in the DPRK I feel a great sense of freedom.” Throughout this whole episode, I saw no impediment, but Palins own prejudices. Ironically, at the start of the programme he is warned by a man who runs a travel agency to shed his preconceptions of the country or “you will sort of fit everything into that box.” It’s glaringly obvious he never took that wise advice.

Michael Palin and his guide decide to stop for a rest on their hike and apparently use the seclusion for a more “open” conversation about their two countries. He starts by asking how they get news, insinuating a lack of coverage. She replies by saying that they received the news just the same as anyone else, by mass media, radio, newspapers and so on. He continues by saying how our way of life (in Britain) is based on freedom of speech and thought (obviously not including journalists like Julian Assange). He also proclaimed our ability to criticise our leaders, implying that in the DPRK, freedom of self-expression is scarce. The young lady retorts by explaining that “You have your own style in your country, but in my country, we believe in the leaders and they represent the masses, not the ruling class.” Palin once again shows a very limited understanding, offering with an answer of no relevance. He mentions leaders are sometimes good and sometimes bad. His mindset of European style-democracy and capitalism blinds him to his understanding the culture and worker-led democracy of the DPRK.

The young lady shows a class consciousness that Michael Palin does not possess. Through the entire programme, he is the embodiment of the Western exceptionalism, only seeing the good in the DPRK when it reminds him of home and never accepting the glaring truths that you don’t even need to visit the country to understand. It is an important part of gaining class awareness to understand how we are propagandised against any society that has successfully shed its ruling classes and seeks to emancipate workers. Western exceptionalism wants us to believe that we rightly rule the waves, because our version of society is the only way. It never tells the truth that the East had civilisation way before we did and that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a better example of democracy than ours. The people of the DPRK have a highly developed class consciousness and national consciousness, formed by their long struggle against US and Japanese imperialism. We in Britain could learn from them, as far too many of us are unaware of the true history of both our class and our nation to the point where we see the wars of our ruling class as being ‘our wars’ when in reality we have more in common with those workers under attack than we have with the British ruling class.

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